Prison and society: women need a different approach

community meeting
Anna Smith, CEO

Anna Smith posted this on 31/03/2017

In 2007 Baroness Corston’s report proposed a radical reshaping of women’s prisons. Ten years on, national charity Women in Prison has published a review and it’s worrying how far we still need to go.

It’s still true that too many women are sent to prison. So often sentences are handed down to women who are not a danger to society. And these sentences don’t actually help them reduce their offending. I’ve even heard women say that they have occasionally offended deliberately to go back to prison as they get more support inside than out and because at least they are safe and housed.

Sending women back to prison for low level offences is costly, serves no purpose and traps them in a cycle of homelessness and removal from their children. And it usually compounds the issues that led them to commit crime: poor self esteem, poverty, lack of skills… The story of Jessica Whitchurch, recently published by the BBC, cites One25’s work. But, tragically, Jessica was one of a terrible 46% of women in prisons who attempt suicide and one of a record number of deaths in women’s prisons in 2016. Among other things, her death underlines how as a society we absolutely must change the way we respond to women offenders.

The Corston + 10 says there has been no progress on a number of the original recommendations. This includes recommendation 20: “Women must never be sent to prison for their own good, to teach them a lesson, for their own safety or to access services such as detoxification.” Despite initial cross-party support in 2007 of the Corston report, we still don’t see this change. The review goes on to say: “This is a tragic reflection on the lack of support, care and safety in the community available to women with complex needs.”

In my last role with Advance, supporting women involved in the criminal justice system, I got insight into what effective, high-quality services look like. I know that what we’re doing at One25 is spot on: skilled, non-judgemental casework, in a women-only centre, in close partnership with other services. Last year, with One25’s support, 57 women made bold life changes to reduce their offending. Only together can we keep helping to make the difference.

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